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Practicing Scales: A Method for Saxophonists

Here’s a method for practicing scales that I began using intensely when I started conservatory training, first at the CNR Boulogne-Billancourt with Jean-Michel Goury, and continuing through the rest of my grad school studies. It’s not perfect and is not the only way. It’s one way among many. But, it was very productive and truly raised my skill level exponentially. I’m working on devising a name for this method, but haven’t come up with one yet.


A good scale routine must be:


Focused: This means one must be highly aware of the sound and physical motion taking place during practice and that practice must be acutely goal-oriented at all times. Generally, the goal is accuracy. (Speed will follow, eventually.) Everything must be played with intent toward the goal. A goal may be as small as playing a 3-note segment of a scale, or as large as playing a scale full range multiple times non-stop. If a problem occurs (a wrong note, slow finger, etc.) you’ll need to be aware that the problem exists and identify the specific source of the problem.


Structured: It must follow a process. For me, using a metronome and the Londeix book provides most of the process, but I’ll explain more below.


Overall, one must be extremely meticulous all the time.


The Method


I’m open to change and suggestions in the future, but here it is:


1. Get this book:


Les Gammes Conjointes et en Intervalles by Jean Marie Londeix.


Do not skip this step! Get this book. You won’t regret it.


2. Choose a tempo carefully.


The tempos you choose must be controlled with a metronome and identified exactly. You need to know precisely what tempo you’re playing at (or trying to play) at all times. Know this tempo (number) and write it down on whatever page you’re working on the Londeix book.


Tempos need to be slow enough that you can play total accuracy. If you’re playing wrong notes, slow down.


3. Practice each scale throughout the full range of the saxophone and in segments with a structured process.


There are many ways to structure learning a new scale or improving a familiar one, but here’s what I do. This is not perfectly scientific, but mostly captures my scale routine and what I recommend.


-Students learning a new scale should do so by reading the scale in the Londeix book. I know there are varying philosophies, but I think learning visually, kinesthetically, and aurally at the same time helps.


A. -Choose an articulation pattern from the front page of the Londeix book. You may want to pencil it into the scale because each note must be tongued, slurred, etc. correctly based on where it falls in the pattern. Write the pattern you’re using, and follow what you’ve written in, always.


B. -Play the entire scale full range, slowly with a metronome. Write down the tempo you’re capable of (playing with perfect precision). Repeat. (How many times? I don’t know. Several.)


C. -Play the first octave of the scale ascending only. Repeat several times.

For example G major from low G to high G.


D. -Play the first octave of the scale descending only. Repeat.


E. -Play remaining ascending notes up to approximately high C or D.

This will depend on the scale. For G major, play from high G to high C.

Repeat several times.


F. -Play the highest 4 notes (palm key notes) ascending only.

For example, in G major this is C, D, E, F#. (These are the highest 4 notes possible in the range of the saxophone.)

Repeat several times.


G. -Play the highest 4 notes (palm key notes) in descending order only.

In G major, F#, E, D, C. Repeat several times.


H. -Play the highest 4 notes ascending and descending without stopping, using steady rhythm (all 8th notes or all 16th notes, for example).

In G major, this is C, D, E, F#, E, D, C.

You may just want to play the top 3 notes: D up to F# and back to D.

Repeat several times.


I. -Play the scale from the tonic to the top of the saxophone’s register and back down again.

For example, high G (or low G) to high F# and back down again.


J. -Practice the lowest 3-4 notes of the scale with a similar approach to the top notes (palm keys). Play the lowest notes descending only (low D to low B in G major), ascending only (low B to low D in G major) and descending and ascending (low D, C, B, C, D in G major).


K. -Finally, play the scale full range as printed in the Londeix book at a tempo that’s totally clean. Repeat several times. Write down that tempo.


Making It Faster:


Continue practicing segments of the scale above as needed, always with a metronome. When you play a segment or the scale correctly, increase your tempo by about 4-6 BPM and then play it again. Mistakes will happen, in my experience. You should be able to fix your mistakes after a few tries of the segment at the new tempo. If not, slow it back down.


Once you get the segment correct at the new (faster tempo), keep doing it. Repeat it several times correctly. Learning is accomplished through successful repetition, not a one-time success.


Draw a bracket over that segment of the scale and write the tempo you can play at.


From there, you could focus on a different segment of the scale, or do the same one again a bit faster.


Personally, I think if I make a challenging passage of repertoire, or a new scale 6-10 BPM faster in one day, that’s a success. After doing that, I usually move onto something else.


Conclusion:


In closing, the above process sounds incredibly tedious, if not painful, I admit. But, once it begins to work one can see true, measurable progress each day and this is incredibly rewarding. Enjoy the process of discovery and go learn those scales!


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